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One Woman Who Made Her Travel Dreams Come True


7 Minute Read

During my teenage years, growing up Melbourne, Australia during the 1970s, travel was never far from my mind.

With a father who had experienced the romance of ship travel in the Orient and my mother who was immigrant from a Second World War London, wanderlust was in my heart just waiting to blossom.

It was to come many years later – following a fulfilling motherhood to two beautiful daughters and working out of necessity.

With my passion for tarot having its roots in medieval Europe, I had always thought that would draw me first.  But strangely enough, it was Asia, short holidays in Vietnam and India that ignited my yearning for more adventure. To do things differently in the footsteps of many of the ancient wise ones.

A chance meeting with a young Scottish couple travelling in Vietnam planted the seed of change in my heart. They were travelling for a year! So many questions flooded my mind on meeting them. How can you afford that? Where did you start? What a great idea! Imagine that, stepping onto a plane or ship or train and knowing you are not coming back for a whole year! A vision of Paddington Bear with only a tiny suitcase sprang to mind and I knew their dream had to be mine.

So at age 52,  after much shedding – cars, furniture, full-time jobs; my partner and I handed the keys of our tiny apartment to his son. We decided it was cheaper to travel for a year staying in hostels and homestays than to live in Melbourne.

Following the sun was the trick to only needing carry-on luggage. Starting in a Melbourne autumn, we set off for spring in Buenos Aires, Argentina. We were also determined to live like locals.

We adhered to only three rules; number one was to stay at least a month in each country to allow the culture to truly seep in. Rule number two was no purchasing of clothes unless one garment was given away to a recipient who needed it. If we bought a coat, we would then leave it for somebody who could use it.  Number three was we would only travel with what we could carry. In 2011, it was just 7kg of luggage.

That year saw us tango dancing in Argentina, climbing the Andes in Peru, discovering caves in Turkey and sailing the waters of Ulysiss. After a month overlooking the fiords of the tiny village Perast in Montenegro, we set off for our final six months. We travelled to the village of Rajbag in Southern India, where I studied reiki and reflexology.

Then, the universe brought us an amazing opportunity and without much hesitation, we accepted an offer to set up and run a small guest house in Vietnam. The connection from years earlier came via email.  Were we still interested in managing a guest house?  Yes yes yes!  Was the resounding reply.

Southern India turned into our planning time for our new venture. Each day as the sun rose, we walked the two kilometres to the beach, past bird wetlands and sari-clad beautiful women on their way to work. With our toes planted in the sand, our days were spent putting our dream onto paper. Drawing plans, writing menus, our vision included becoming a part of a fishing village where we could give back to their community.  Offering homely comfy accommodation with the opportunity for guests to be a part of a real village. Our Vietnamese vision sprang to life as we filled our tummies with curry and mango from the local Rajbag beach vendors.

We had never seen Bai Xep, Quy Nhon, the location for our new home. That first day, we wandered through the tiny village, little smiling faces peeped out around doorways, dogs barking, women mending fishing nets looked up at us shyly. My heart skipped beats and I knew this was going to be an amazing place to be!  For the next three years, our new home became the home-away-from-home for many weary travellers.

Tears, laughter, frustration, lack of language, determination, and much love came together to realise our guesthouse Haven. From our initial kernel, came the passions of many others who made us their family for a short time. Some of them have in turn gone on to run their own guest houses which employ local people and give back to their communities.

Our life in Bai Xep was not without its hardships. Most days presented unforeseen problems. The electricity was constantly being cut. We would wake to no power, which would sometimes take days to return. We cooked with gas or on small charcoal BBQs, but as the sun rises early and sets at 6pm we were often without lighting to cook by! We managed this by wearing miners’ torches strapped to our foreheads and having candlelit dinners. With twelve hungry guests, every night – not cooking was not an option!

Language was our biggest hurdle. Not only was there no English spoken in the village but many people could not read or write. Education that we take for granted is precious to these small villages.We had two large tanks for the water, which was piped from the mountain. The tanks regularly ran dry so we would take bike trips up to the water source. Usually to find our supply had been cut and taken to another business! We put the pipe in – which brought running water to our village; before that, they only had the well. Water was pumped and carried to their humble houses.

 

I had thought I would get around my lack of Vietnamese by writing in Vietnamese from translator apps. To get around this problem, we bought fruit and vegetable posters and had them up on our kitchen walls. Our kitchen looked like a kindergarten, but we got the job done. I could point at what we needed and slowly my Vietnamese vocabulary increased.

As the universe does, it brought us an unexpected twist. We learned sadly that the land we leased was to be sold. We could take the risk that the new owners would lease to us, or try to sell our business. We chose to put the business up for sale. Feeling strongly that if it was meant to be – another opportunity would arise.

Chance played her part again. An English guest told us the story of her parents who lived in rural France. Something just clicked for us and we started to think about the possibility of a different life in a rural Europe.

Just two months later – after a flying visit to family in the UK, we were sitting sipping wine in Montmorillon France.  We had been brought here for lunch having never heard of it. Dining on delicious crepes beside the river, we both felt the magic and knew this would be our next home.

So the wheel turned again, finally, in medieval Europe my passion for the tarot and history could bloom again.

Montmorillon, Cite De L’Ecrit, a town of books is our home now. Our rambling old 17th-century house on the river Gartempe will never be perfect. Its joy comes from living at one with the birds and the river. Our gites providing a comfy immersion in rural France, the world now comes to us!

Moving to France has created another first for me. The publishing of my first novel, Bonne Chance and Butterflies. A novel – it tells the story of woman’s courage as she makes a profound change in her life. Her incredible journey of self-discovery emerges in my magical town Montmorillon.

So, take a chance, move into the unknown, experience other cultures, listen to your heart.

When you open your heart to chance and change – the universe answers.

Rosie’s accommodation in Montmorillon can be accessed here – Riverside Studio and Charming Montmorillon Maison, both are self-catering accommodation.

And to her book Bonne Chance and Butterflies on Amazon.

Goodbye my Lovely Friend – Nigel Castle


5 Minute Read

There comes a point in life and I’m sure it’s different for everyone when one becomes aware of one’s mortality. I can’t pinpoint when, exactly, it was for me but one day I became scared of climbing up or down steep staircases, thinking I might fall. I stopped driving about 10 years ago when my little Fiat 500 was taken back by the leasing company and, since then, when I get in the passenger seat of a car, I’m aware that my heart beats a bit faster than usual. I avoid looking out from tall buildings. These may all be totally unrelated or, as I suspect, they’re just my brain sending out a warning signal that life is full of dangers that I’m not quite as resilient as I was in my youth and that death may come upon me suddenly.

I have also spent the past year becoming more interested in death and specifically, how I’d like to die and my funeral. A lot of this has come from putting together the film Death Dinner which Rose Rouse and I created last year with the help of an Arts Council grant.

Death Dinner explores the arena of death in conversation with ten characters who are connected to the death industry. There is a marvellously gothic mortician, an end-of-life-doula, a death rituals’ academic, a soul midwife, a photographer of Afro-Caribbean funerals and more. It all took place over an abundant feast in the Dissenter’s Chapel at Kensal Green Cemetery. Prior to making the film, I hadn’t really given death much thought, but the dialogue over dinner made me realize that there are many different sorts of funerals and ceremonial aspects, as well as various ways of body disposal.

Recently, I attended a Thanksgiving for the Life of Nigel Castle, held at the Rosslyn Hill Unitarian Chapel in the heart of Hampstead. Nigel was someone who had been in and out of my life for the past decade, thanks to an introduction made by his closest friend, Rob Norris.

A keen gardener, skilled healer, acupuncturist, osteopath, masseur plus being a good musician, Nigel was multi-talented. At various times, he had tended to my garden, worked his magic on my back and danced with me and others at 5 Rhythms, another passion of his. My children, now grown up, remember us all sitting in a circle and singing together while Nigel and Rob played guitars. He was a familiar face around Maida Vale and Queens Park, driving around in his beaten up Volvo. I never knew how he kept that car on the road but somehow he did. Nigel was always around and then, one day, I found out, via Rob, that he had lymphoma and two months later he was gone. He was 67. I never got a chance to say goodbye but there were plenty of people that did. Nigel was much loved by everyone that met him.

If funerals could come with ratings, then Nigel’s would have been a five star one. I’m by no means an expert on what constitutes a good or bad funeral, but Nigel went out in a way that will leave a lasting memory for me and, I’m sure, for many others.

Rob Norris

The service itself lasted two hours. And, let’s face it, it’s hard enough to find a table in a restaurant that will let you sit there for two hours, much less a chapel. The service presided over by Anja Saunders, Nigel’s old friend and an Interfaith Minister, wove together music, poetry, tributes, recollections and finally Nigel’s own voice. At various points during this unconventional and beautiful service, we danced around the beautiful wicker casket to Dance me to the End of Love by Leonard Cohen, and then we were invited to come up and weave flowers into it or write tributes to Nigel on small, brown labels which would be buried with him.

There were tears and laughter as friends and family recounted their memories of Nigel. A pianist had written a song for him. A guitarist wrote another one. His friends from 5 Rhythms read out a series of poems. Rob and I particularly liked White Owl Flies in and out of the Field by Mary Oliver, which seemed to sum up Nigel perfectly.

Coming down out of the freezing sky
with its depths of light,
like an angel, or a Buddha with wings,
it was beautiful, and accurate,
striking the snow and whatever was there
with a force that left the imprint
of the tips of its wings—five feet apart—
and the grabbing thrust of its feet,
and the indentation of what had been running
through the white valleys of the snow—
and then it rose, gracefully,
and flew back to the frozen marshes
to lurk there, like a little lighthouse,
in the blue shadows—
so I thought:
maybe death isn’t darkness, after all,
but so much light wrapping itself around us—
as soft as feathers—
that we are instantly weary of looking, and looking,
and shut our eyes, not without amazement,
and let ourselves be carried,
as through the translucence of mica,
to the river that is without the least dapple or shadow,
that is nothing but light—scalding, aortal light—
in which we are washed and washed
out of our bones.

The length of the service felt like we were all able to collectively grieve, and by the end, I felt my spirits lighten as we all said goodbye to him. It was an amazing tribute to a wonderful person and I couldn’t help thinking that the world would be a richer place if everyone chose such an intimate departure ceremony.

Afterwards, I spoke to Anja to thank her for the way she managed to oversee the service and its host of participants in such an effortless manner. She was so fittingly graceful in the way she provided just the right amount of space and time between tributes for us to absorb what Nigel had meant to those he loved and just how much of an impact he had had on so many people. At the end, she encouraged us all to breathe and we did…

Culture Interview with author of The Ethical Slut, Janet W Hardy.


1 Minute Read

Janet W. Hardy is a provocative American sex educator and one of the leading authors and publishers on alternative sexualities including BDSM, polyamory and alternative gender/orientation expression. Author of ten books, including her notorious and groundbreaking guide to polyamory and open relationships The Ethical Slut: A Guide to Infinite Sexual Possibilities (co-authored with Dossie Easton), Hardy has been one of the most infectious and compelling voices of consensual non-monogamy and the pursuit of (ethical) pleasure for more than twenty years.

She is doing a talk in London on Oct 3rd. You can purchase a ticket here.

We’re called Advantages of Age and we’re hopefully challenging media stereotypes around ageing, do you see this pursuit as relevant to you and your work? Could you tell us how old you are?

I’m 63, due to turn 64 in February. Not quite old-old, but not really middle-aged anymore either.

Your new book is called Impervious – Confessions of a Semi-Retired Deviant – so we were wondering what you are still up to as a deviant?

I think of myself as a “deviant emeritus” – with all the knowledge and experience I acquired over three decades of exploring alternative erotic behaviors, gender expressions and relationship structures, but not very actively involved in any of them anymore – hence “semi-retired.”

Could you let us into a few juicy interludes that you have included? Why did you want to write this memoir?

I wanted to write it for a few reasons. First, because I think any one individual’s personal experience of kink gives a very different perspective on kink as a whole than can be gleaned by a media-filtered overview. Second, because I don’t think enough has been written about kink as an ecstatic experience, and for me, that’s by far the most important aspect of BDSM. Third, because it’s fun to write a smutty graphic recounting of some of the amazing experiences I’ve had through the years.

 Some of my favorite chapters of the book include one about an encounter in which a group of women spent an evening preparing a very small woman to be fisted for the first time by her very large husband; one about an encounter where my partner and I broke the common BDSM rule about “never play while angry,” and one about agreeing to become a substitute disciplinarian for a dominant who was out of the country and could not properly chastise his slave.

You and Dossie Easton wrote Ethical Slut over 10 years ago, why did you use the word slut and has it served the cause?

Actually, the first edition was published in 1997, so that’s upwards of 20 years now. In the beginning, we were calling it “The Ethical Slut” as a working title, kind of a joke between us – it was a phrase Dossie had invented, but we never thought we’d actually publish under that title. But as we tried to come up with something more socially acceptable, all we could find were horrible clunky textbook-sounding things like “Multiple Loving for the Coming Millennium,” blargh. Finally, we had to get our cover designer started, and we really couldn’t think of another title than “The Ethical Slut,” and some friends encouraged us to go for it, so we did. And it turned out to be a brilliant move. I think we helped jumpstart a whole new part of the sex-positive movement, one in which people of any age, gender or orientation can claim the title “slut” with pride.

Is society catching up with you now? How do you view polyamory and pansexuality now? Has your attitude towards polyamory changed?

My attitude hasn’t changed at all – I think polyamory is one of many excellent ways to manage a relationship, and that any relationship style that works for the people in the relationship is great. But there’s no question that polyamory is far more broadly understood and more socially acceptable than it was in 1997. There was a Newsweek cover, there was a reality series, there have been uncountable newspaper and magazine articles, podcasts, etc. 

I do want to note, however, that pansexuality and polyamory are not the same thing. Pansexuality is a retooling of “bisexuality” for people who believe that bisexuality implies only two genders (it doesn’t). Polyamorous people can be hetero, bi, pan, ace, gay, or any other sexual identity.

I guess the Metoo campaign has made ethical all the more important?

I think what #metoo has done is brought to the forefront a very long-overdue conversation about the nature of sexual consent – and that’s a conversation that’s changing shape almost daily. Poly people do not have a monopoly on ethical sexuality. Everyone, whether they identify as monogamous, poly or something else, has to consider the ramifications of their sexual and romantic behaviors, which must be respectful, consent-aware, honest and growth-oriented in order to be considered ethical.

Polyamory is difficult to do – jealousy has to be dealt with – but do you think it’s easier for older people?

I don’t really have an opinion on that. On one hand, older people are often more comfortable with who we are as individuals, with less need to seek out romantic partnerships in order to feel whole. But older people got indoctrinated into normative monogamy at a very early age, and may have to work harder to overcome that conditioning. Younger people these days are likelier to enter the sexual/romantic arena with more sense of what possibilities are out there, but they may not have as much self-awareness as older folks, and self-awareness is essential to ethical poly.

Are you in a non-traditional marriage?

Sure am! My spouse and I are both genderqueer, bisexual and kinky, none of which makes us all that non-traditional in the groups we run in. However, we have never had sexual intercourse, and we no longer have any form of genital sex, which is still pretty non-traditional, even among our perverted friends.

How has ageing affected your desires on the BDSM and leather front?

My libido is certainly not what it once was, but it’s still very present. However, I rarely-to-never feel the desire to indulge it with anybody but myself. I still do the very occasional BDSM scene, either as part of a lecture/demonstration or with an old and beloved friend, but the hunger that sent me to play parties every weekend and play dates once or twice a week is not part of my life anymore, and I find I rarely miss it much.

What do you see as the possibilities re ageing and sexuality?

I think the work being done in alternative sexuality toward creating forms of sex that are not predicated on penetrative intercourse (we sex educators call this “outercourse”) has the potential to be extremely helpful for older folks who still want the excitement and connection of sex. Penetrative stuff can very often be problematic with older bodies – penises refuse to get or stay stiff, vaginas get stubborn about lubricating. But outercourse can be fun for anyone.

I see you have also been into tantra and full body orgasms?

Yes. When my coauthor Dossie and I were researching our book “Radical Ecstasy: S/M Journeys in Transcendence,” we took many tantra classes together and had some astonishing experiences. While I don’t think full-body orgasms scratch exactly the same itch as genital orgasms, I also believe in having lots of arrows in my quiver, so I like doing some of each!

Are you still working with Dossie Easton? I was intrigued by the scenes that you two set up together when you’re writing about sexuality.

We don’t have any new books in process – we don’t have anything that urgently needs saying right now, but if that changes, we’ll definitely be back at our keyboards. 

Our scenes together have always been part of our process as writers. If there’s an issue on which we need clarity, we create a scene to explore it together. I don’t think I can recommend our technique to all coauthors, but it’s worked pretty well for us for thirty years now.

Are we making progress re openness and sexuality as a society, do you think?

Right now, depressingly enough, we’re in the midst of a sex panic – finding ways to talk about important sexual information is more challenging right now than I think it’s been since the Internet started enabling people to share information about sex. But I don’t think the genie of good sex information is going to go back into the bottle. There is a lot more information about sexuality than there was when I was young – I was pushing 30 by the time I figured out that I wasn’t the only person in the world who got turned on thinking about spanking, and it’s hard to imagine that happening now. But the more forthright and informative sex information becomes, the greater the pushback against it from conservative forces who want to restrict sex to a very narrow form of expression (married/heterosexual/fertile/etc.).

What’s important to you now re sexuality and desire?

Self-awareness, access to information and tools (any older person who does not have a bottle of lube on their nightstand is missing out on a lot), fighting back against shame and oppression.

What mistakes have you made on the relationship front and where have they led you?

I am by nature a caretaker, and that’s led me down some unfortunate paths. I don’t think I get to stop being a caretaker in this lifetime, but I have gotten better about distinguishing between caretaking and codependency, and at looking for relationships where my caretaking is met with appreciation and echoed by someone who wants to take care of me too.

Can we be old and bold on the sexuality and relationship front? And what does that look like for you?

The best thing about being old, as far as I can see, is getting over caring what strangers think of you (aka “having no fucks left to give”). I fear that many older people avoid being overtly sexual because they think they’ll look ridiculous. And what I think about that is, who cares? If you feel hot, and you look hot to the person you’re in bed with, what some twentysomething thinks of you is the least relevant issue imaginable.

For me, this plays out as a lot of experimentation with gender signifiers, and a lot of thinking and discussing the possibilities within our grasp when we let go of conventional thinking about questions like “What is sex?” “What does it mean to be female?” “What do we actually need from relationships?”

A Breath Before Sixty


1 Minute Read

My hair is grey.

I return from my hairdresser having had the last bits of colour chopped out.  I’m now sporting a choppy, silver and pepper pot, topknot, not entirely dissimilar from my beloved dog.

I don’t fully understand the impulse to grow out the colour, which had me ditch the hair dye in April. I knew it was related to my sixtieth birthday, which is now a mere two weeks away. I wanted to see my hair. I had been using colour for fifteen years, ever since my hairline started to grey.

It wasn’t anything clichéd about aging and grey hair, that drove this. It hasn’t been comfortable at some points during the process, seeing the half in, half out thing going on, on a daily basis. Now I’m here. My hair is grey and I’m surprised by the strength of my feeling. Oh. I say to myself in the bathroom mirror. Hello.

I limp and lurch towards my ‘big birthday’ not only as a metaphor, but literally, as I’m long overdue for back surgery. Limping and lurching is what I do – though, my bulging discs notwithstanding – it is a blessed relief to understand that stumbling, staggering and lurching, is the human condition of our little lives. My own little life has become much sweeter, since giving up on getting life right.

Sixty.

Caroline Bobby by Elainea Emmott
Caroline Bobby by Elainea Emmott

The shoreline. The beginning of being old: to my way of seeing it, anyway. No, I am not the new forty. I am not still middle aged. I am averse to ageing euphemisms.

My mother died, just days after her sixtieth birthday. She was bitterness and sorrow as an art form, and I never really understood how that came to pass. I was on the other side of the world, caught up in my own version of sorrow and bewilderment. We were estranged for years. Her death coincided – although I wasn’t to know it for quite some time – with the death rattle of my addiction. No coincidence. I was so nearly dead myself, on my knees in the shadows of Sydney’s yellowest sun. My mother died and I stayed alive.

Thirty years ago: half my little life ago.  And, here I am with my grey hair, having somehow descended into tenderness. I wish my mother and I had had more time together, an opportunity to see if there was any other way to dance our dance. It was a brutal dance and I needed kindness like a desert landscape needs water. I nearly died of thirst. I believe that is exactly what she died of – she was latched on to the breast of death, and didn’t ever get to know there was another place to drink from.

Twenty years ago, when I was in therapy and starting to interpret past events, I went to the graveyard on the edge of Dartmoor where she’s buried and lay down on her grave. It was a pilgrimage of sorts, though I was making it up as I went along. I didn’t know what I was doing or why, but I managed to trust the imperative. If it were physically easier (those discs again), I’d go back there now to lie on the ground that holds her body. A mother and daughter, with a hundred and twenty years between them: thirty of them in this world at the same time.

This turning a new decade, it has some juice. As an exquisitely understated friend of mine would say – ‘it’s not nothing’.

Credit: Elainea Emmott
Credit: Elainea Emmott

I don’t have any recollection of reaching ten except for a tiny, waft of unease. Neither do I remember a twentieth birthday, which was undoubtedly due to drugs and alcohol. Turning thirty was the milestone of my life. I don’t remember anything at all with my conscious mind, but almost dead from self-hatred and drugs, I finally turned my face towards this human world.

Ten years later, I celebrated becoming forty around a table with friends. I had a profession: psychotherapy, and a partner. I was trying to force myself into an idea of myself and it was only a partial success.

By fifty, I had escaped the partial partnership and some internalized constraint. I had found and then lost again, the love of my life and the daughter we called in. I had a proper party with catering and dancing and wore a sea green dress. It seems so long ago.

Sixty.

With a light, yet serious touch, I’ve dedicated a few ritual acts of love and kindness towards this birthday. In May, I went on a pilgrimage to Hydra, the Greek island where Leonard Cohen lived, wrote and loved. More recently, I commissioned a photo shoot. At home with Leonard The Dog and Bebe The Cat. Family life. Love.

Credit: Elainea Emmott

And, it was not nothing – to see the sweetness and comedy I live inside, from the outside.

These last ten years I have been winding myself home. Many things I’d thought I needed, turned out not to matter much. I found the Fields of Kindness and Simplicity. I discovered they had been here all the time. I had been here all the time.

I wonder what the next decade of me, and of this wailing world will be. I’m viewing my personal next decade through the lens of no real appetite for more than that. My sense of having the capacity for another ten years, but not much more, is clear as a mountain stream. No drama. Nothing complicated or ambivalent. Just its ring of truth. And, of course I know ideas, beliefs and passions change, so I’m not gripping on too tightly.

I am trusting my own precious heart. If this is my last decade, I’ll do the very best I can with it.

If you are wondering about why a person might ‘only have another decade to give or to live’, I can only say I’m very tired. I’ve been tired all my life. Living with depression is tiring. I’ve been dragging myself through the days of my life, and while I finally fell from the self-violence that came down through my mother’s line, into something like Grace, it will always be heavy. Dragging the heavy is wearing and I am worn.

The thing is, all of this is gentle. I did, eventually get home to that precious heart I mentioned. The fact that it took a long time, and that in many ways I’m ready to go now, just makes me smile. Maybe I’ll make it to seventy. Maybe I won’t. If I do, and still feel like this, I’ll be writing about ending my life. If I get to seventy and don’t feel like this, I’ll be writing about that instead.

Depression and weary aside, I know I don’t want to be old, old. Seventy feels doable. More than that feels dangerous. We don’t hold old age with compassion and respect in these broken systems of our government. I am crystal clear I don’t want to spend my last years in that system. Unequivocally not.

So, here I am, stumbling sweetly towards my sixtieth birthday, which incidentally I’m celebrating by going on a Death Retreat. I tell people, and they mostly grin at the perfect pitch of it. So very me, and so very lovely to be seen and understood in my deepest longings.

As Leonard (Cohen)would say:

And here is your love
For all things.

And here is your love
For all of this

May everyone live,
And may everyone die.
Hello, my love,
And my love, Goodbye.

Menopause and Mining your Diamond


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Today we do not expect young Western women to start their periods without education yet many women find themselves approaching Menopause with no idea of what is happening, unsure where to turn, hiding symptoms and feelings to their own detriment and to the detriment of those around them.

If we look at the baby boomers, we were the first generation of women to have clear access to our own bank accounts, birth control, divorce, university education and so much more. We are the mothers who have hopefully taught our daughters not to be ashamed of their bodies and menstruation. We are the women who have fought for rights that allow us to access sexual health services, equal pay and we still have work to do.

Now it is the time to shine the light on Menopause and equally important perimenopause. Menopause is the time when a woman has not bleed for an entire year. The peri-menopause can be anything from one or two years before this event or even as much as ten years prior to that last bleed.

Perimenopause for some women is a walk in the park but for others, it can be a roller coaster with maybe only one or two symptoms but sometimes many more.

There are at least 35 symptoms to ‘choose’ from and it is possible that you will experience at the minimum a couple. To understand what is happening to our bodies we need to be able to recognise that perimenopause is a rite of passage, it is normal and when given access to the right information we can make this a transition to celebrate.

It is only now that we are growing in numbers that we are able to challenge attitudes such as this:

A menopausal woman is ‘an unstable oestrogen starved’ woman who is responsible for ‘untold misery of alcoholism, drug addiction, divorce and broken homes’
Brooklyn GYN Robert Wilson 1966

So if this was the general attitude in the 60’s and 70’s when our mothers or Grandmothers were hitting menopause how are things changing today?

Today the wonderful news is, just like menstruation, we are starting to talk about it in mixed circles, at work, with our girlfriends, in front of our children.

No need to fan ourselves discretely, we can name it, it’s called a ‘hot flush’ and yes we are sleeping with the bedroom window open in the middle of winter and no we are not ‘fading’ or going into the ‘good night’ gently. We are wearing what we want, embracing our silver hair, we are starting new careers, we are celebrating our wisdom and most of all we are talking about that once taboo subject and making it a passage worth celebration.

However, before that can happen for all women there is still a lot of work to be done and as ‘Elders’ we have a duty to own this time and reframe it so those younger women coming behind us can have a healthy attitude to ageing and embrace the wisdom that comes with the territory.

As we menopause, our womb shrinks to an almost prepubescent size. During our menstrual years amongst the many and varied services our uterus provides, is a service of elimination. Not just of womb lining but of toxins from our body which is only one of the reasons why the quality of our bleed will change from month to month.

Once menopaused we are no longer bleeding so it makes perfect sense for the uterus to shrink down and thus leave no space for toxins to accumulate. This is part of the process of perimenopause and comes with changing hormones, changing feelings, changing body shape and changing needs.

This is a time when we may not recognise our selves and it may be equally difficult for those around us to recognise us too.

This is a time for us to retreat and spend time doing things for ourselves, to ask our selves questions we have not had space to dream of until now. This is a time to change our priorities, to create space just for our selves, just because we can.

If we allow ourselves the sacred space of retreat we will unearth what it is we need, we will dig up our old dreams, the ones that got forgotten in the rush to adulthood and responsibilities of life.

Diamonds are created in the earth by intense heat and pressure and so it is with our wombs. Intense heat and pressure, the compression of our uterus, the opportunity for change give us a diamond of our own. A bright shining light right in our centre which can be a light to shine for all those women coming behind us, a light to shine for those who can recognise it and a brilliance to illuminate our own lives each and every day.

If you would like to know more about my work you may enjoy my workshop. For more information take a look at www.hilarylewin.com, find me on Facebook or sign up on Eventbrite here – Menopause Mining For Diamonds

Why I Wrote a One Woman Show about Ageism!


1 Minute Read

When I entered my sixth decade, I started feeling like I had entered a new universe. People began talking to me differently. “Are you retired? Are you still working?” People at a previous job were mostly in their 20s, and I was older than their parents. Weird. One day you wake up and it’s a new reality. Maybe I have more wrinkles, brown spots? I must look different! In my thinking, I don’t feel any different. I had a job that was awful, and I came home one day very exhausted, more tired than ever, and I began writing this show about ageism in America, and my experience being a ‘senior’ in our youth-driven USA culture.

It’s also harder to be an ‘older’ woman in our society. It may be better or worse in the UK. I am not saying it’s easy for men either, but there is more bias against us women. Men are ‘distinguished’ while women are judged on how young they look again and again. Hence the cosmetic surgery industry and so much more. Times are changing though. Through writing my show about ageism in America, I started meeting women who shared the aim to shift perceptions about aging and who realize we are no longer want to be in the youth club.

Advantages of Age | The Advantages of Age

I had never written a one-woman show. I had been performing a one-woman improv, interactive show for decades promoting designer hats that I created, and would sell them at the end. After a while, women’s clubs, senior homes, and charity events would book me to perform. I wore outrageous outfits and featured my hats as the art. I was previously a wardrobe stylist for print ads and billboards. I did costumes for a film, and the whole time, one of the actors said I should be in front of the camera, not behind it, and I could just get up and talk and everyone would laugh. After that summer, I took a comedy class in Manhattan. I went on to do stand-up comedy which led to studying to be a milliner.

Hat making was wonderful, but I needed to still perform, so I created a hat performance which is part of my one-woman show, Ageless Wonders.

Years later, on my dad’s deathbed, he gave me a big grin. That smile changed my life for the better. He rarely smiled, as he had experienced a tragic childhood. I was inspired to start a movement about the healing power of a genuine smile. The Smile Revolution was born. I started a blog, had a radio show with celebrity guests, like Pete Seeger, Richie Havens, Arlo Guthrie, Buffy St. Marie and more. My waistband (ex-husband), Roland Mousaa, introduced me to them and worked with them. He and I wrote a series of smile songs that we sing in my new show.

After my radio show ended, I was developing a tv show to promote The Smile Revolution. Nothing was working out. I went to Los Angeles, and saw my actor friends who said, “Why don’t you do a one-woman show, and here’s a coach?” I immediately contacted Jessica Lynn Johnson, an award-winning Best National Solo Artist, and Director of Solo Shows. I could never have written and performed this play without her direction and guidance. I started writing a show about my childhood, but after a few months, I paused as it felt really hard.

After nine months ( like giving birth!), I was working at a job that I hated, and one night when I was tired out, I started writing my new show. It’s been a tremendous amount of work and financial investment, but it’s been the most rewarding experience of my life. I feel fulfilled and happy, yet stressed at times too!

My show has a metaphysical twist to it, which gives others hope, and a new perception of ageing.

In my show, I speak directly to the audience sharing personal stories as well as inspiring stories about aging that help shift perceptions, mainly for women, since its harder for us in the U.S.A. I do an interactive ‘Hat Parade” with my designer hats, sing original smile songs with my was-band, ex-husband, Roland Mousaa, promoting the healing power of a simple smile. I interviewed in a 2-minute video, Anthony Mancinelli, who at 107 has been cutting hair for 95 years, works full time, and drives. He is a true “Ageless Wonders” and knew he would inspire my audience to realize they are not old!

Professional Reviews:

“Mindy is a wonderful, living, work of art.” Nohoartsdistrict.com

“Mindy is zippy, zesty, and full of life!” Bonnie Priever, Curtain Up

“She leaves the smiles and laughter for keeps.” Paul Smart, Woodstock Times

www.mindyfradkin.com

@agelesswonderstheshow on Instagram

twitter @ageless_wonders

facebook.com/princesswow

OLD, OLD, OLD – Let’s Take It Back


1 Minute Read

Old – English ald, of West Germanic origin; related to Dutch oud and German alt, from an Indo-European root meaning ‘adult’, shared by Latin alere ‘nourish’.

I was writing this piece before AoA – Suzanne Noble and I – went to the Byline Festival in East Sussex at the end of August 2018 where we gave a workshop there around the taboos of getting older. A few women participants – one was 64 – were adamant that they were still young. Which propelled me into action again.

I had an age crescendo myself before I had my 60th birthday. A spike, an emergency, a horror story. My internal waters cascaded. My refusal to grow old imploded, exploded and derailed me as a woman. I’d just got used to being post-menopausal, in other words, non-fecund, not so attractive to men as I thought I should be and then along came 59.

The edge, the precipice, the chasm of no-return. Could I be The Fool?

In the tarot deck, The Fool is the major arcana card, which depicts the young man (it should be a woman, of course) with his knapsack and his dainty step right on the edge of the cliff about to step into the Big Unknown. For me, this is the Thelma and Louise moment, the car over the cliff, the new life or the oblivion.

I decided that I would fulsomely fling myself over that edge and welcome OLD. Such a little adjective with so many fears in its sub-textural bag. So many cultural and societal demons entangled and ugly. The sag, the disappearance of desire, the looming energy loss, the not being seen as a desirable woman, the disappearance in the world of work, the atrophied vagina.

NO, I was not going down that waterfall, that cultural fall into darkness and non-existence. That bleak, bleak mid-winter. I was searching for the summer instead.

First of all, I stopped being so quiet about my age. To anyone I thought might miscalculate in the puella aeternus direction. To younger men. I mean who were 50 and might, at a pinch, think I was the same age them. That all stopped.

And on dating sites where fear reigns. Particularly from women. If you are honest about your age, you will only be visually visited by men at least 10 years older than you. Or a lot younger. That was so dispiriting. I raged against this particular dark night but in the end, I gave up lying.

Liberation.

And then I had a huge 60th birthday party. I went the whole hog. Without the pig. Voewood House in Suffolk was the location. A butterfly house architecturally, it turned into my own emergence as elder. Or as older, as Ashton Applewhite, the activist and author of This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism, likes to say so acknowledging that wisdom is not integral to the greater age!! We – there were 40 of us staying in the house and another 30 in B&Bs – danced to all that 70s funk. I did a speech about owning my 60th year. I hate the way so often we British only have a party and are silent about the connotations, the feelings, the meaning in our hearts.

There were performances as gifts. And there was a Rites of Passage ritual on the Sunday morning. That was BIG for me. Co-created (oh no one of those contemporary words) by two of my close women’s group friends, I spent an hour in silence with myself, then I was invited to join the rest of the guests who were in the main hall. Slow, heart-opening music was playing and I found myself in the circle of women dancing with them one by one keeping our eyes in deep contact. Sometimes there was an irreverence as with my old school friend – yep, 45 years – Sarah, sometimes a flowering grace and tears as with psychotherapist, Juliet, sometimes a gorgeous acknowledgement of relationship as with my French friend, Isa and on it went, this womanly interweaving.

And then there was the people-tunnel, many feminine hands caressed me through the decades, softness prevailed and then I was hugging someone at the end, which turned into thunderous tears.

My son. And all that signified. OUR huge love. So gorgeous to be in it and realize whom I was with!! And his male friends at his side, also in so many tears; I savoured every watery, heart-split-open moment. This was being in love.

The men appeared and whisked me into the air. The energy changed. Trust, trust, trust. In their hands and care. That masculine/feminine relationship. I surrendered fully to the carrying, to the being carried. Away.

And then the final stage, crossing the threshold to elderdom – there was a distinct lack of peer elders but one or two appeared, one reluctantly – amid candles to acknowledge this new life stage. I spoke quietly.

Old, I was old and fully there. Now I had the rest of my days to inhabit that previously feared place.

Co-founding Advantages of Age when I was 63 – was another way to relax into this BIG declaration. We’re always saying how old we are, literally.

And it’s such a freedom.

Mary Beard, 64, is the high priestess of OLD. In this social media world, in this age-industry world of chasing young, chasing the lack of lines, the super horn, the porn delusion, Mary Beard is in the public eye looking and being proud of looking her age.

Hurrah!

And at the forefront of re-claiming OLD in all its glory, in all its positives as opposed to the disease-laden, hideous beast that it is cast so often to be.

She has declared that OLD should be reclaimed, re-appropriated. Very much in the mode of when the gay community took back queer. And the black community took back nigger. And the BDSM community took back perv.

“I’m rather keen for a campaign to do that for old, instead of ‘old’ instantly connoting the hunched old lady and gentleman on the road sign, or the picture that you get on the adverts you get for senior railcards.

I hope by the time I die, old will be something that makes people fill with pride,” she said in the Telegraph.

In the taking back – the shame, the negativity, the fear melts away.

The Gray Panthers in the US are on the same track. An advocacy group that works on all sorts of anti-ageist campaigns – from highlighting forced retirements to what goes on in care homes – they have peppered their name with a little Black Panther/Gray Panther warfare in the name of activism on the age front.

Already in the UK, a third of the population is over 50. In Japan, it’s a quarter. In the US, it’s a third too. We need to find another way with not just the word old but the fears that it evokes and the results of those fears.

David Weiss, assistant professor of socio-medical sciences and psychology at Columbia University’s Aging Center has identified a phenomenon, he calls Age Disassociation.

“As people grow older, they distance themselves from old age. This behavior maintains ageism and the notion that nobody wants to be old. It’s hard to impose a positive meaning of old age in that case, and potentially difficult to counteract negative age stereotypes.”

Can old become groovy? Yes, it can. Janet Street-Porter is on board and recently wrote an article where she declared: “At 71, I don’t see my world as diminishing, quite the reverse. I see nothing but opportunities and challenges ahead.”

At Advantages of Age, we’re promoting the idea that we can be a funky tribe of oldsters if we want to. The Flamboyance Forever Bus Trips – where groups of us dressed up to the nines in jewels, sequins (hot pants, thanks Serena) and colours gave us the opportunity to thoroughly relish our visibility, verve and hilarity. We also talked to each other a lot, new connections were made. In NYC, we did a smaller Flamboyant Forever outing on the subway. 83-year-old purple-haired and head piece-bedecked Topaz Chanteuse came along in all her dazzling glory. We were transfixed by her spirit of fabulousness. And inspired. At a later date, she showed us her tinsel-adorned walker!

This is the way forward. Not necessarily the flamboyance which is fun, but the attitude of putting ourselves out there and not cow-towing to reductionist age industry-influenced negativity.

In fact, the Office for National Statistics reports that older people are more satisfied with their lives than many other groups. I can’t tell you how relaxed I feel now that I am fully out there age-wise, it makes a huge difference to my life.

So let’s start fully re-claiming old in all its magnificence.

Me, Myself and Lyme


1 Minute Read

Earlier this year I launched my second novel, Anatomised, which explores the impact of Lyme disease. There’d been a nine-year hiatus since the publication of my debut novel: A Portrait of the Arsonist as a Young Man. Convention says the second book can be harder to write than the first as the author sometimes hits a creative brick wall, so a time-lapse between the two isn’t unusual. A decade, however, can start to look more like retirement than a creative break.

Anatomised was definitely much harder to write than my first book, though my problem wasn’t in the fresh-ideas department. On the contrary, I was brimming with material and raring to go – until I was bitten by a tick and everything in my life unravelled. I found myself trapped in a black-windowed, monolithic building on the corner of Survival Street at the intersection of Life and Death. The terrifying symptoms of Lyme disease were initially mistaken for many other life-changing conditions, misdiagnosed as two strokes, a possible brain tumour and multiple sclerosis. Meanwhile, the raging infection was undiagnosed and untreated. It was therefore given time to take hold, spread, cross my blood-brain barrier and even destroy parts of my brain. As my own lights dimmed, the devastation of Lyme disease lit up the MRI scanner.

Within months I lost my livelihood (fiction mentor and creative writing tutor at two universities). I lost the ability to walk, to stand, to read, to write, to even think straight. There seemed little hope of me writing anything more than my own obituary. I was forty-four, had been riding the crest of a wave, and then I was sucked under, lost to a freakish riptide.

As a novelist and historian, I’m often asked about autofiction; the place where autobiography and imagination overlap. Anatomised is fiction, but it has facts at its heart. It tells the story of a middle-aged couple whose lives are turned upside-down by a mysterious illness that threatens to crush their dreams. It explores dark subject matter, but the main protagonist is a stand-up comedian so there are lots of lighter moments as it moves between harrowing, humorous and heart-breaking.

Just before I got sick, I was poised to write a romantic tragi-comedy set on an idyllic holiday island. It was to be pure, if dark, escapism; a beach read; a philosophical “Mama Mia”; a masterpiece. In my wildest dreams it would top the Times bestseller list, be optioned, turned into an award-winning film, a standout musical, a Chekhovian play, a Netflix TV series, and I would make a fortune that King Midas would be proud of! But soon after my long brush with death, after discovering the huge and rapidly growing numbers of patients experiencing Lyme disease around the world (a majority of whom had no voice), I parked the rom-com, re-set my moral compass, shifted my creative focus, and prepared to set off in a new direction. But first I had to get better.

It took over two years to be diagnosed and treated for Lyme, and then several more years to make a gradual, if incomplete recovery. Miraculously, I started to form coherent ideas and words. Sentences flourished, paragraphs piled up. It was as if I’d risen from a tomb, like a Lyme Lazarus, and I’d come back to the living with an important story to tell. The question was: should this tale be factual or fictional, memoir or novel?

Writing a semi-autobiographical novel allowed me to safely revisit the past; to explore exactly what went wrong, and still goes wrong for Lyme patients, from shambolic diagnostic processes to denial of treatment. Mistakes were made through ignorance, accident or inexperience, at other times through old-fashioned obstinacy and obstructionism. Sadly, similar errors and misjudgments are still being made with Lyme patients across the globe – every day. Anatomised writes some of these wrongs and wrongdoers, setting the record straight in the hope things will change for the better, because they must.

The process of reliving trauma in such detail was overwhelming and exhausting, but it also provided purpose and motivation; a reason to drag my ravaged, aging body out of bed. After a Eureka moment, when I suddenly understood how the story would end, I knew I was on the right track. Ironically, although I was reinventing the past, I never looked back.

Could I have written this story as straightforward memoir? In theory yes, in practice no. The truth is Anatomised did begin as non-fiction. I initially wrote 30,000 words as memoir but I gave up. The life I’d left on the page felt dead and flat, like the tragic two-dimensional outline of a Hiroshima Shadow left on the walls of buildings decimated by the atomic bomb. I pressed delete and wrote another 15,000 words of creative non-fiction, first from the viewpoint of my wife and then a close friend. There was life in this reawakened memoir and moving silhouettes, but still there was no depth of field. Facts remained facts, cold and cadaver-like. When I sat down to write, I sank further into the quicksand of the past, experiencing what I now believe to have been post-traumatic stress disorder. Lyme almost killed me, and now I was destroying myself all over again.

On the verge of giving up on writing (if I’m honest, on life itself), I stumbled across the names of Jack and Alice Mann that I had jotted randomly in a notebook, intended as material for a totally different story. Searching for safe emotional distance, I started to write in the third-person, viewing the rollercoaster ride from their shoulders. The fictional floodgates opened. Creative lightning lit up my sky. I wrote feverishly and unfettered for a year. My imagination muscles were flexed, my fingertips burned. Never in a million years would I wish Lyme disease on another person, yet I had to give it to Jack. I watched the comedy of the Manns’ lives unravel into tragedy as if my own survival depended on it; not so much a thinly-veiled autobiography as a heavily-draped curtain on a stage (quite fitting for a forlorn stand-up). Even though Jack and Alice were imaginary, I felt a colossal guilt and apologised to them daily in my head. I still do.

It isn’t rocket science: writing is good for a person. It is self-coaching, self-counselling, self-soothing. It is selfish in its taking from the world, like a sponge sucking water, but it is selfless too in its wringing out and pouring back. Sometimes it’s even mixing metaphors, because writing is gardening for the soul. It is weeding bad things out and planting new things in. But each writer must find their own allotment, the form and shape that best expresses their voice and vision; what they feel or think most profoundly and honestly about the world they live in. For me, fiction rather than memoir is the place I most effectively hunt down truths about what it is to be a human being. Fiction allows a writer to move ideas beyond the realm of “what happened” into the exciting realm of “what ifs”. Ostensibly, Anatomised is about Lyme disease. Arguably, it could have been written as a memoir entitled: “Me, Myself and Lyme”. In novel format, I wanted to confront Lyme, but also to escape it. I needed to surprise myself as a writer, and therefore the reader. Even though dark places exist within, behind and between the pages of Anatomised, readers aren’t absolutely sure what is real and what isn’t, and that’s how it should be. A story reflects its own truth.

All writing has the potential to be liberating. You may not write the wrongs that make the whole world sing, but the process can be psychologically curative; a meditative medicine for the mind. It can provide consolation, comfort and sometimes liberation. It’s true, you can’t cure Lyme disease or other chronic illnesses or traumas with words alone, but you can share your story. You can use what’s broken to reach out and illuminate the darkness. As Leonard Cohen wrote: “there is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in”.

I remember the first story I had published. I’d just thrown away a perfectly successful career as a medieval historian in the pursuit of an impossible dream to become a fiction-writer. When one of my short stories won an international literary prize, my love-affair with writing fiction rather than fact took root. It began to pave the road to creative writing, lecturing posts, the publication of my debut novel, a collection of short stories, editing anthologies and interviewing famous novelists at literary events, including Nobel Laureate, Kazuo Ishiguro. I wrote that first short story under a pseudonym Cassi Hart, an anagram of “catharsis”. Fifteen years on, now in my fifties, the Muse of Catharsis has left her mark on me and on the skin of my pages, like coolness from the softest of calamine kisses. And her kiss doesn’t age.

Anatomised took four years to complete and, despite good reviews, it probably won’t appear on many shopping lists let alone a bestseller list! That’s a shame, as some of its profit will go to international Lyme charities that offer patients a lifeline. It may have been the hardest story I’ve ever had to write but the process soothed my soul, it made me wiser. It probably saved my life, and who knows…maybe it could help save others?

So, as we grow older and wiser, here’s to writing wrongs, flexing imagination muscles, soothing souls, and hunting down the truth of our lives; in fiction, in fact.

Article Copyright: A F McGuinness

Andrew McGuinness is an award-winning author. His traumatic experience of Lyme disease has formed the basis of his new novel Anatomised

Website – www.afmcguinness.com

Buy the book here.

Getting my Painting into the RA Summer Exhibition!


9 Minute Read

‘I am a fan of the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. As a younger man, I thought it a bit jumble sale-like. It’s not, and the mix of a piece by a premier league contemporary artist hanging next to a piece by a ‘Sunday painter’ is one of its great appeals…I submitted two pieces to the 2017 exhibition. Neither was selected. I submitted two pieces to the 2018 exhibition. One WAS selected’   Bob Deakin

I went to art school in the late 1970s. One year at Winchester and three years at Trent Polytechnic, Nottingham. I remember prospectuses for courses typically described them using the word; peripatetic. I applied – and was accepted – having no idea what this meant. Only quite recently did I appreciate it means something like walk around or roaming.

With some help from staff about where I could find things that interested me, my experience at Art School had some fascinating experiences and some exciting consequences. It provided very little in the way of technical training. I did learn how to take and print photographs because I wanted to incorporate these into what I was making. Things like life drawing were not done; it was not hip.

The place of contemporary art in the world then was very different to how it is now. I recall the Tate’s purchase of Carl Andre’s bricks being front cover news on the Red Tops. And not in a good way. It was reported as a scandalous waste of money. I recall being called upon to justify it by aunts and uncles at a family gathering. I doubt I made a good job of this. Thankfully my parents were very supportive, including never asking ‘what’s it about?’ type questions when they visited my degree show. My work then included some visual punning so they would have ‘got it’ anyway.

Towards the end of my degree course, I applied for a place on post-graduate courses. I got as far as interview for two. Both suggested I go away for one year, continue making work, get some experience and apply again in 12 months’ time. I went away. I got a job. One that had nothing to do with my art education, but was fun, paid cash on a Friday afternoon and didn’t require me to think of work if I wasn’t AT work. I often spent much of the cash I received on a Friday afternoon on the same Friday evening.

My father was struck by an illness from which he died. I supported my mother through the initial months of her grieving. I got a dilapidated flat near to the Oval cricket ground. I fixed it up using skills I’d peripatetically acquired at art school and also learned from my DIY enthusiast father. Would he be pleased? I think so.

My fixing-up skills helped with my appointment to the job of Display Carpenter at Harvey Nichols, Knightsbridge. It was an exceptional job. I loved it and I learned so much in my time there. It was also where I met Rachel. We fell in love and were together for 27 years. We have two children. We separated in 2009.

Rebuilding my life as a single man was a challenge. It was sometimes delightful, sometimes not. I started going to art galleries again. When I did I appreciated how much I had completely suspended this driving interest.

I experienced visual art differently from how I had as a student. I didn’t feel compelled to understand it as I once had. My responses were more; ‘Do I like this?’ ‘How did the artist do that?’. ‘I can see the artist’s hand in this’.

Sometimes I’d be looking at the work of a contemporary, practising artist, sometimes a Michelangelo or a Leonardo. At moments during my visits I cause concern to gallery attendants. I have no intention of touching but I like to be inches from the surface to see the evidence of the MAKING of this thing.

The single-man Bob started to think about acquiring some of the technical skills his art school education didn’t provide. I signed up for evening classes. I did lots of life drawing, also etching, silk-screen printing and recently portrait painting.

On a 1 week and then a 2-week summer school course, I experience rigorous training in drawing. At times I imagine my experiences to be like those of an apprentice to a Renaissance artist in 15th century Italy. I doubt there was much peripatetic about their learning. There was nothing peripatetic about mine on these two courses.

At a portrait painting evening class in 2017, I set myself the task of producing 12 portraits within the 2.5-hour class. I think I got 7 or 8 done. If you knew how possible it is for me to labour obsessively over getting things ’right’ you’d appreciate the potential liberation associated with this intention.

This is one of my paintings from that evening: I thought it to be of little merit. The tutor and some other students thought different. I took it home and it grew on me. People who know me well have made comments about it that I recognise are deep-rooted aspects of me.

I am a fan of the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. As a younger man, I thought it a bit jumble sale-like. It’s not, and the mix of a piece by a premier league contemporary artist hanging next to a piece by a ‘Sunday painter’ is one of its great appeals.

I submitted two pieces to the 2017 exhibition. Neither was selected. I submitted two pieces to the 2018 exhibition. One WAS selected – the image above. (I’m excited and emotional just typing this.)

One of the privileges of exhibitors is the invite to Varnishing Day. Here’s my story of that joyful day:

Exhibitors meet in the RA courtyard for the procession to St James’s Church.

On the walk, I strike up a conversation with Eleanor, also a first-time exhibitor. We discover that we both studied at the Art Academy on Borough High Street, me evening classes, she a five-year part-time course. We had both been taught by Carl Randall. Carl was responsible for suggesting to me that my piece in this year’s exhibition had some merit.

The church is gorgeous, the service lovely. I am struck by how the voices of the small 8 piece choir fill the space of the church. I think there must be more than two hundred of us in the congregation. I picture the 200+ beating hearts and creative brains. I am aware of mine being one of these.

I walk back to the RA with Eleanor. We express our mounting excitement about seeing our respective works in the galleries. I don’t remember when I last felt like this. I am at a loss to describe the feeling; this is a first-time experience.

Back at the RA now, and at the entrance to the galleries, we are given the ‘List of Works’ book and a glass of sparkling wine. None of us knows where we’ve been hung. I look me up; I’m in room IV. Eleanor is in another room and we part saying we’ll catch up later.

I walk straight to Room IV and see my painting across the room from the door. I’m in a great place. I take photos as I walk towards it. These are blurred. Is this due to my excitement? I take more, this time closer and in focus.

This is such a thrill.

Looking up to the right from mine I think I recognise the work of an artist. I look it up in the List of Works. It is the work of my art-school tutor Gerard Hemsworth.

I haven’t exhibited anything since my degree show in 1979 when Gerard was my tutor. Our paintings are hung about 2.0 metres apart. First I’ve met Eleanor with whom I have Carl in common, now I’m this close to Gerard, who was influential in my art education and for whom I’ve the greatest respect. I’ve seen his work at previous Summer Exhibitions.

I share this 2.0-metre proximity with other exhibitors, including Una Stubbs. Her painting and mine are 1.5 metres apart.

I walk to some other rooms but am compelled to return to mine to witness my painting seen by others. I am delighted to see that Gerard is there. He’s barely changed in the nearly 40 years since I last saw him. I say ‘Hello Gerard’. There’s the briefest moment of hesitation on his part until he smiles and we both do the ‘nice to see you, which room are you in?’ type exchange. I (like to) think he is as amused as I by the proximity of our work. We chat for some time.

I walk around once more. Then return to my painting. A painting very near mine is by a young artist. He’s maybe 11 years old and his mum is with him, taking photographs. I congratulate him on the inclusion of his work in the show. We both say it’s our first. I tell him he will surely have more.

A man in a flat cap joins our conversation. I ask him in which room his work is hung. He introduces himself as Humphrey Ocean, committee member of this year’s exhibition and hanger of Room IV.

He tells me he liked my painting from the first time he saw it and thinks it sits very well with those paintings he’s hung close to it. He tells me it also looks like the portrait of another exhibitor in Room IV. He subsequently introduces me to others as ‘my new friend Bob’, and tells me that Gerard was also his tutor back in the day.

 I am stopped in the courtyard on my way out. He introduces himself (I forget his name) as the creator of another piece in room IV. I recall the piece. He saw Humphrey and I talking, he knew which piece I’d painted. He said he liked it.

Humphrey has two paintings in this room. Gary Hume is hung here too. Looking at the List of Works this evening as I write this, I note that Lisa Milroy, David Batchelor, Jock McFadyen, Harry Hill and Basil Beattie, with Una Stubbs and others whose names I don’t recognise, are hung in this room. How remarkable that I’m showing alongside them. And Gerard.

I had the greatest of days today at the Summer Exhibition Varnishing Day. I’m thinking it was meant to be.

The RA Summer Show is on until 19th August.

More info here.

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